James O'Connor could so easily have been steering the ACT Brumbies around the park come Saturday night.
Wind the clock back 10 years to when O'Connor was a 21-year-old tyro with blonde tips running through his hair, to when one of Australian rugby's brightest talents was just scratching the surface of his potential.
He was at the top of incoming Brumbies coach Jake White's shopping list, though then-chief executive Andrew Fagan was left to concede that once more "we've missed out".
Less than two years prior the Brumbies were one of three clubs making a desperate bid to lure the then-teenage superstar away from the Western Force.
O'Connor takes a moment to ponder just how close he was to joining the Brumbies that second time - he was "very close" - and concedes "it just wasn't meant to be".
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Instead he leads the Queensland Reds into a Super Rugby AU final at Brisbane's Lang Park in front of more than 40,000 fans on Saturday night.
O'Connor takes the captaincy reins against the Brumbies. He lines up at flyhalf - a position he admits he once ran from - opposite rising star Noah Lolesio, his Wallabies roommate.
The Brumbies and Reds form Super Rugby AU's leading narrative. They are the competition powerhouses. For all the talk of rivalries with the NSW Waratahs, this is the code's headline act.
So how deep does the reignited rivalry run leading into a grand final rematch with the club he once nearly joined? Is there a sense of dislike, perhaps even hatred?
"Dislike? I wouldn't say dislike, we respect them. They've been the top Australian franchise for a long time, even going back 20 years," O'Connor said.
"I saw something the other night, they've won three Super titles. We respect them. I don't know if it's dislike, but we really get excited to play them, that's for sure.
"We're going to have 40,000 people at [Lang Park], on Queensland soil, it's unreal. It's what rugby is about. I feel like we're going into battle against the other best team, they have been the other form team. It will be good to watch.
"[The crowd] is a weapon, for sure, having that many people supporting us, it's a weapon. We'll feel that. It's energy behind us.
"This [would be] the first silverware I've been a part of on Australian soil. Everyone talks about it being another game. It isn't another game, it's a final. My mindset going into this is it's the last game of the year for me."
Of course, O'Connor has a Super Rugby Trans-Tasman competition and a Wallabies campaign on the horizon.
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But for now his focus is solely on orchestrating a drought-breaking title for the Reds as they host a decider in Brisbane for the first time in a decade after the COVID-19 pandemic drastically changed the landscape of Australian rugby.
"I don't think I could have seen this developing this way. It was a really tough time and it brought a lot of teams closer and it brought our group together nicely," O'Connor said.
"I think rugby in general has been through almost like a respurt. It feels good. Australian rugby feels really good. It's the first time, even around Brisbane, there is a great buzz about it. I'm going to my local cafe and people are stopping us to have a chat about it."
SUPER RUGBY AU FINAL
Saturday: Queensland Reds v ACT Brumbies at Lang Park, 7.45pm. Broadcast: Live on Stan Sport and Channel Nine. Tickets from Ticketek.
ACT Brumbies squad: 1. Scott Sio, 2. Lachlan Lonergan, 3. Allan Alaalatoa (c), 4. Darcy Swain, 5. Cadeyrn Neville, 6. Nick Frost, 7. Rory Scott, 8. Rob Valetini, 9. Nic White, 10. Noah Lolesio, 11. Tom Wright, 12. Irae Simone, 13. Len Ikitau, 14. Andy Muirhead, 15. Tom Banks. Replacements: 16. Folau Fainga'a, 17. Harry Lloyd, 18. Tom Ross, 19. Henry Stowers, 20. Luke Reimer, 21. Ryan Lonergan, 22. Reesjan Pasitoa, 23. Mack Hansen.
Queensland Reds squad: 1. Feao Fotuaika, 2. Brandon Paenga-Amosa, 3. Taniela Tupou, 4. Ryan Smith, 5. Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, 6. Angus Scott-Young, 7. Fraser McReight, 8. Harry Wilson, 9. Tate McDermott, 10. James O'Connor (c), 11. Jock Campbell, 12. Hamish Stewart, 13. Josh Flook, 14. Jordan Petaia, 15. Bryce Hegarty. Replacements: 16. Alex Mafi, 17. Dane Zander, 18. Zane Nonggorr, 19. Seru Uru, 20. Liam Wright, 21. Kalani Thomas, 22. Isaac Henry, 23. Filipo Daugunu.
*The Brumbies are offering a package for fans including a charter flight to and from Brisbane, a ticket to the final, and one night's accommodation. Secure your seat here.
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